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Sports Illustrated: A eulogy

The sports magazine gave us literature along with pictures of sports stars

The cover of Sports Illustrated on Nov. 20, 2016 Associated Press/Photo by Darron Cummings

<em>Sports Illustrated</em>: A eulogy
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I received the text from the son of my best friend from college: “Sports Illustrated is going out of business. They fired all of their employees today.”

I replied: “I owe my literacy to that magazine,” which is true. I texted my dad, and he replied with, “You gotta be kidding. Getting that magazine was the greatest gift Gramps ever gave me. It was like getting my weekly paycheck. You gotta write a piece about that!”

This is that piece. It’s been years since I’ve received Sports Illustrated, and I kind of put it away, emotionally, when I started writing for its competitor, ESPN the Magazine, in the early 2000s. Both magazines really haven’t been any good for a decade, with most of SI’s online “stories” reading like long tweets. And yet, knowing that it’s gone is not unlike the feeling you get while watching the first act of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, when they close down Life magazine. The feeling is something along the lines of, “We’re losing something very important, and, in fact, this is just another mile marker in a long journey of important things we’re losing.”

My first clear memories of the magazine start around 1984. It would come to my mailbox every Thursday afternoon, and I’d immediately scan the issue for football or boxing stories. What I didn’t realize as a little football-obsessed Indiana meathead is that I was getting heaping doses of literature alongside the award-winning pictures of my heroes. I was getting George Plimpton and Dan Jenkins and many others who, I would find out later, were real writers. Some of the best to ever do it.

In a pre-internet, pre–social media world, Thursdays were my best shot at seeing images of Walter Payton, Jim McMahon, Mike Tyson, and all my other imaginary friends.

I cut the “Incredible Bulk” Tony Mandarich cover off and hung it on my bedroom wall as emblematic of the kind of physique I wanted to have. When I graduated from high school in 1994 and superlatives came out in the yearbook, I was voted “Most likely to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.” What none of us knew was that I wasn’t all that good at football and would have a much better shot at writing for the magazine.

I clipped off and hung the “College and Pro Football Spectacular” cover featuring Brian Bosworth (my favorite linebacker) holding Jim McMahon (my favorite quarterback) on his shoulders. This lives as a time capsule of a time when athletes weren’t super boring.

Unbeknownst to me, SI columnist Rick Reilly taught me how to write columns.

At some point, I received the Sports Illustrated football-shaped gift phone, which would be used to call high school girlfriends, my eventual wife, and even her dad to ask for her hand in marriage—which call was made seated on the floor in the hallway outside my room, with my wife-to-be listening in on the other line in my parents’ room.

Unbeknownst to me, SI columnist Rick Reilly taught me how to write columns. At some point, I started flipping to the back page of the magazine, even before looking for football and boxing stories. I wanted to see Reilly’s column, which was interesting to me regardless of the subject matter, which meant that Reilly was the first writer I ever liked and cared about. In about 800 words, he usually managed to be funny, poignant, heartfelt, and opinionated. His column was the filet of the magazine.

When I “served” as a “missionary” in Lithuania in 1998, as a 21-year-old know-nothing recent college graduate, my parents sent me care packages consisting of NFL games on VHS tape (including the Randy Moss at Lambeau Field game) and stacks of Sports Illustrated magazines.

While shivering in a flat in Vilnius, I learned all about the steroid-fueled home run race between McGwire and Sosa and read about my favorite college linebacker, Andy Katzenmoyer, who graced the cover of the college football preview issue. I read and reread his article as I suffered from a nightmarish bout of Eastern European food poisoning, which culminated in a terrible night in a Lithuanian hospital. When I returned to my flat after receiving several IVs, the magazine was there for me, as it was whenever I returned home to my parents’ house as a young adult.

But about things we’ve lost: We have of course lost scarcity. I mean, why get excited about a Walter Iooss photo of my favorite athlete when I can follow his Twitter feed and his Instagram and see thousands of photos of him in seconds. We’ve also lost boredom, and by that I mean the sweet joy of sitting around your parents’ house killing time flipping through years-old editions of Sports Illustrated. Or the boredom that accompanies sitting in waiting rooms and being glad when there’s an SI there to keep me company.

Now that we live hunched-over, concave-chested phone lives, we have none of this. Our kids won’t know what it’s like to kill time in the magazine section at the grocery store or to browse magazine stands in a big city.

Thank you, Sports Illustrated, for being there in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, and for teaching me to read and write.

You’ll be missed.

Ted Kluck

Ted Kluck is the award-winning internationally published author of 30 books, and his journalism has appeared in ESPN the Magazine, USA Today, and many other outlets. He is screenwriter and co-producer on the upcoming feature film Silverdome and co-hosts The Happy Rant Podcast and The Kluck Podcast.  Ted won back-to-back Christianity Today Book of the Year Awards in 2007 and 2008 and was a 2008 Michigan Notable Book Award winner for his football memoir, Paper Tiger: One Athlete’s Journey to the Underbelly of Pro Football.  He currently serves as an associate professor of journalism at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and coaches long snappers at Lane College. He and his wife Kristin have two children.

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